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Residents Question Verdun’s Loosened Demolition Rules

Commercial property owners in Verdun will soon be able demolish heritage buildings in a bad state of repair or at the back of a property without a Site Planning and Architectural Integration (SPAI) review.

“Is this not an invitation to all landlords to stop maintaining their buildings so that they can develop the land for one project or another,” said Gilles Laberge. “There has not been an inventory of buildings in the back of lots, so I’m surprised that the city is so ready to purge them.”

The amendment to bylaw 1700-88 was initially presented to Verdun’s urban planning, housing and heritage committee. Ann Guy, Benoit Malette and Pascale Tremblay sit on the committee. Researcher David Lamontagne-Métivier was also present at the meeting.

The public heard about the change during a 15-minute public consultation prior to the last Borough Council Meeting, February 7. Ann Guy was the only elected official who heard resident comments. She and her colleagues passed the bylaw unanimously less than half an hour later. The change takes effect after the city of Montreal approves it, perhaps next month. (The issue doesn’t appear on March agendas for city council, the executive committee nor the agglomeration council.)

In addition to his comments about owners, Laberge, who is a historian, raised concerns about whether the bylaw amendment would allow the Douglas Institute to tear down an unused root cellar that is one of the last remaining agricultural buildings in Verdun. He didn’t get an answer.

In a later email to the Suburban, Verdun spokesperson Francine Morin wrote that the borough “has established that no 100% commercially used building on its territory has any heritage value.”

She also confirmed that the Douglas Institute applied for a permit to tear the root cellar down in 2010, but Verdun’s planning advisory committee refused the request.

Marie France Coutu, a communications officer with the Douglas Institute, says the organization no longer plans to demolish the circa-1920 building. “In our mandate, there is no money set aside for heritage buildings, but we are conscious that these buildings have value to the community,” she said. “Our intention is to leave it as it is. It’s locked and secured. We don’t want to get rid of it.”

Residents are relieved that an important Verdun landmark might still be saved, but some still complain about the way Verdun handled the public consultation.

“How can we have faith in our elected officials when they treat us like this,” said Fabiola Renaud. “They invite us for one subject and when we arrive, they present something different. The avis told us that the Mayor would explain the changes to the bylaw, but he wasn’t even there. Then after they made us work, M. Malette didn’t even have time to tell them what we said before they passed the amendment anyway. They’re laughing at us.”

(A version of this article appeared on March 14 on page 7 of The Suburban’s City Edition.)

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Autumn in the life of Louise Thérèse Lareau

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She  died in the fall of her 38th year, just after the leaves of Quebec turned colour then fell. The vibrant red of the maples formed a backdrop for the yellow leaves of the birch trees and the oranges of the oaks.

Twenty years earlier, Louise Thérèse Lareau married her husband Joseph. Together, the couple had ten children.

Three of them died before their mother did.

Louise Thérèse’s first son, baby Joseph died only a few weeks after he was born. 

Her next eldest child, a daughter named Marie-Reine, died in February, 1784, a week after she celebrated her eighth birthday and her parents celebrated their ninth wedding anniversary. She was the eldest of four children then, and one imagines that it was her responsibility to take care of the baby, Marie-Anne. The family celebrated Marie-Anne’s first Christmas just two months earlier.

By the end of February, the baby died too.

The family of six became a family of four: Louise Thérèse and her husband Joseph with their two daughters Josephe-Angelique and Marie-Thérèse.

The family somehow survived the rest of the winter. Spring arrived, and by the following autumn, Louise Thérèse was pregnant again. The birth of her second son, also named Joseph, cheered the family up in time for St. Patrick’s Day, 1785.

The couple had three more daughters and another son after that. All four children were born as the trees around them began displaying fall colours. Marie-Catherine was born on November 22, 1786; Charlotte came on October 4, 1788; Guillaume was born on September 22, 1792 and Marie-Victoire arrived on October 19, 1794.

Marie-Victoire’s birth was too much for Louise Thérèse. She died two weeks after the little girl was born.

The church did a census the following year, in 1795. It showed the rest of the family living on St. Georges Street in Faubourg St. Jean, the lower town of Quebec City. Joseph was a carpenter and their building was one of only a few on that street without a number. By then, three of the children–Josephe-Angelique, Marie-Therese and their second son Joseph–could receive communion with their father.

Note: This is a non-fiction version of a previous story about Louise Thérèse’s life.

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When Tagging Goes Too Far

Just prior to the first public tour of Montreal’s oldest country house last August, someone splattered giant graffiti tags across two of its four 300-year-old stone walls.

Twenty days later—after many phone calls, advice from Montreal’s pre-eminent heritage art restorer, and 40 hours of careful nylon brushing by a blue collar employee—a pristine building greeted visitors for the archaeology week celebration.

The incident was the first time anyone has damaged Maison Nivard de Saint-Dizier, a two-storey stone cottage built by Gilbert Maillet for the Congregation of Notre Dame nuns in 1710. Yet similar vandalism occurs too often in Montreal, says Dinu Bumbaru, Policy Director at Heritage Montreal. “In the past, there’s been a general consensus that the graffiti guys wouldn’t damage historic monuments. This unsaid convention has broken down.”

All public institutions with property on the island of Montreal—including 19 boroughs, the STCUM, five school boards, and the municipal, provincial and federal governments—have different protocols for handling typical graffiti removal on their territories. When a designated heritage building or monument is tagged, however, an expert art restorer has to approve the removal to protect historic value and prevent permanent damage. The graffiti on Maison Dizier put extra pressure on Verdun’s arts and culture head Nancy Raymond, who was already busy finalizing plans for Maison Diziers’ anniversary celebration this month and next, and who normally wouldn’t deal with graffiti.

Verdun’s protocol calls for removing graffiti from all structures, whether publicly or privately-owned. A local bylaw, and a strong partnership with the Montreal police, enables graffiti-prevention experts to meet with parents and shopkeepers, visit schools, and recover costs from anyone convicted of defacing property. Fines go to parents of taggers younger than 18 years.

The three-pronged approach (education, prevention, control) was developed as a pilot project three years ago. It has since been deemed so successful, that the Montreal police are expanding it across the island. “If every borough could imitate what Verdun does here and could clean all the graffiti in all the public and private places, Montreal would be much better off,” says Commandant Eric Lalonde, chief of police for Verdun’s neighbourhood office 16, who also heads Project Graffiti. “They understand very well the “broken window theory” in that everyone feels safe when it’s clean.”

Removing graffiti as soon as it occurs is expensive, and can’t be handled solely by borough blue collars. At their September meeting, the borough awarded four contracts to three companies (Hydrotech NHP Inc., Solutions Graffiti, and S.R. Vapeur Inc.) to cover graffiti removal for the next five years at an estimated cost of $295,277.94, despite having already awarded a $220,423.89 contract to Hydrotech NHP Inc. last May. None of these contracts include removing graffiti from Maison Dizier or any other historic monument or sculpture.

“When it’s a historic building, they want to make sure that the removal won’t hurt the structure,” says Sebastien Pitre, from Solutions Graffiti in Lasalle. “I’m in charge of the projects for the Lachine Canal, and there are historic buildings there, but I don’t do historic buildings in Verdun.”

“Removing graffiti on this isn’t the same as taking it off an overpass built in the ‘70’s. It is a very precious and fragile monument,” said Bumbaru. “There are sections with mortar and sections with stone. When this house was built, they were taking rocks from the fields and they can be limestone, granite and sandstone mixed together.”

“When the house was restored a few years back, the outside of the house was repointed,” said Gina Garcia, the art restorer who consulted with Verdun on the project. “The old mortar between the stones was removed and replaced by a new historically-correct mortar using traditional lime based mortars, which are much more fragile than cement based mortars.”

To advise on how to clean off the graffiti, Garcia spent a day testing different solvent mixes and strippers which could be used without a high pressure water jet. Then she trained Verdun’s regular maintenance team to apply them properly, leave them rest for the ideal length of time and then rinse them without damaging the mortar or the stones. “The technique was gentle and time consuming but it was done using eco-friendly paint strippers, small plastic brushes and water rinsing at very low pressure. And more importantly, it didn’t attack the fragile lime mortars.”

Maison Nivard de Saint-Dizier was supposed to open fully next month, but the permanent exhibition won’t be ready until spring 2012. Instead, Verdun has arranged for costumed interpreters, story-tellers and simulated archaeology digs to occur every Saturday and Sunday from now until October 23 to commemorate the structure’s 300th anniversary.

(A version of this story published on Open File on September 11, 2011)

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